Introduction

The cover letter, along with your resume, is the first thing a hiring manager sees when looking at your application.  It is your written handshake and elevator pitch. So what is the first thing you need to get across? You are qualified for the position, and you would match well with the company.  That’s quite a task for 1 short page, but don’t worry because most successful cover letters follow a specific formula.  Since you are convincing them that you are a qualified match for the exact job posted, each cover letter must be unique to the job.

See an annotated example of how this is done in practice.

Criteria for Success

To create a successful cover letter…

  1. Customize it to the company and position
  2. Make it easy to read
  3. Be specific and concrete
  4. Write carefully and concisely

Structure Diagram

Identify Your Purpose

The cover letter is part of an application that acts as a sales pitch, selling you to a potential employer.  The purpose of this application is to convince the reader that you are both qualified and motivated to take on the role you are applying for.  You can prove your qualification by presenting your strengths and backing them up with concrete experiences and accomplishments. Your motivation is best shown by a carefully written application that is tailored to the company and position.  Taking the time to perfect your letter is evidence of your competency and your sincere interest in the job. The cover letter and resume are closely related in terms of their purpose and tone, so you might also want to read our guide to writing a resume.

The cover letter acts like the abstract and the personal narrative for your application.  Like an abstract, it gives a glimpse of what is inside, allowing the reader to decide whether or not they should invest the time to read further.  Therefore, your cover letter should overlap with your resume and other application materials. However, your cover letter is also your opportunity to personalize your application material.  Be sure to build on the information in your resume by describing how your experiences will make you an asset to your potential employer.

Analyze Your Audience

Do your homework before you write your cover letter.  After carefully reading the job posting, look for the employer’s website and other published materials (research articles, interviews, etc.).  Strongly consider reaching out to people within the organization to gauge what they value in their employees. If you can figure out who will be reading your application, look to see what you can learn about them (from the company website, LinkedIn, etc.) to help you relate.

When you write your letter, tailor it to what you have learned.  Your cover letter should mimic:

  • Expected skills and knowledge
  • Desirable traits
  • Goals and values of the organization
  • Type of language and formality

Mention the things you like about the company from the information you found. Explain how your experiences demonstrate the attributes they are looking for.  Wherever possible, emphasize your commonality with the organization and the people.

Skills

Write a different cover letter for every application

It is key to show that you are both qualified for the job and a match for the organization. To demonstrate that you are qualified for the job, research the requirements and make concrete claims about your abilities to perform these requirements.  In order to show that you are a fit for the organization, you need to do your homework! What goals and opportunities excite you about the organization? What makes it a good place for you to work and advance your career? Which of your skills and accomplishments match those requested in the job posting?

You’ll be a more exciting candidate if you demonstrate that you understand and are enthusiastic about the organization’s mission. Find specific words or phrases that the organization uses to describe its own values (e.g, “transforming the landscape of renewable energy,” “fast-moving and dynamic”). Echo these phrases in your letter. Highlight experiences and interests of yours that correspond to these values.

Follow the established structure

Most readers have well-defined expectations for a cover letter. They are reading many cover letters and will quickly decide if you go in the “yes” or “no” pile. It can be detrimental to be too creative when the result is an unfamiliar structure for the reader.

Header. Give your name and contact information.

  • Your telephone number and email are enough. Include your address if you are local and you think they are looking for local job candidates.

Salutation

  • Ideally “Dear [reader]”, but “To whom it may concern” if the reader is unknown

Paragraph 1: State Interest. Name the position. Include job numbers or job posting locations.

  • “I am writing to express interest in [position] at [organization].”
  • This paragraph is one or maybe two sentences.

Paragraph 2: Explain Interest. Show why you are interested in this position.

  • “I am excited about this position  because…”
  • Make it clear you know what this job will entail.
  • Choose your wording to show your match with the company.

Paragraph 3: Sell Yourself. Show why you and this organization are good for each other.

  • “My experiences in [qualifying experience] make me a strong match for this position because…
  • Why do they need you and exactly you?
  • Show that you are both qualified and a good match

Paragraph 4: Closing Remarks. Make it clear you expect to hear back.

  • “I look forward to hearing your response.”

Make concrete claims

Back up any claims about your abilities or qualifications with concrete accomplishments. If possible, quantify your accomplishments. For example, to show that you have “independence and an innovative research spirit,” describe the scope and outcomes of research projects you’ve led or carried out on your own.

Start a conversation

Your cover letter is designed to get you an interview, and successful interviews usually turn into conversations. Start the conversation early. Be humble and curious. A claim like “I know I’m a perfect match because …” is usually an overstatement.  A claim like “I’m excited to explore this opportunity because …” is more appropriate and will likely get you further.

Make no mistakes

A single spelling or grammar error can keep you from a job. Spend the time going through your letter in detail to check for errors, taking time to double check the names in the salutation.

Download Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 1
Annotated Example 1

The person who wrote this cover letter was offered a job at the target employer. 2 MB